Remarks at Workshop on "Public Diplomacy in a Post-Truth Society"

Remarks
Bruce Wharton
Acting Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Hoover Institution, Stanford University
Stanford, California
March 20, 2017


(As Prepared for Delivery)

Thank you very much for that kind introduction. Nearly six decades ago Herbert Hoover said he wanted the Hoover Institution “to sustain for America the safeguards of the American way of life,” so it is fitting that we have gathered here today to debate a pressing challenge for both our nation and the world community – the idea of a “Post-Truth Society.” I am grateful to the Hoover Institution and to the U.S. Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy for bringing us together for this important discussion.

“Post-truth” society

There has been much discussion in the media, academia, and within the U.S. government about living in a “post-truth” or “post-factual” society and how to operate in it. Much was made of Oxford Dictionary’s decision to make “post-truth” the Word of the Year in 2016, an adjective they defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In such a world, the public policy debate is framed largely by what “feels” true and what correlates with people’s pre-existing set of beliefs and prejudices, which can often be disconnected from actual facts and the specifics of policy. It isn’t so much that facts are dismissed entirely, but rather they are of secondary importance or simply not as compelling, especially when they challenge what feels true at an instinctual level. In this context, all opinions have equal weight, regardless of how extreme they may be.

While this is not a new concept — it has played a role in politics since antiquity — in our age, social media has exacerbated the problem, accelerating the speed at which false stories spread, creating “digital wildfires” of misinformation. By the time a false story is out there, it is often too late to mount an effective rebuttal based on facts.

Compounding the problem is the active work of non-state and state actors who aim not only to disseminate misinformation but, most damaging, to erode trust in traditional sources of information. These actors — whom Get Smart fans might collectively call “KAOS” — do not necessarily want people to believe they are telling the truth, but rather to think that no one is. Their goal is to diminish public trust in government institutions, established media outlets, and subject matter experts, leaving citizens open to the influence of an onslaught of questionable information generated through re-enforcing social media loops.

While there is much that is accurate about this description, I would like to contest the view that we are living in a “post-truth” society — if by that we mean truth and facts no longer matter. Facts do exist. They are out there; we cannot operate without them. And they remain compelling when they are part of a larger truth-based narrative that is backed up by supporting actions. Crafting and effectively putting forth that narrative with foreign publics is the real challenge of Public Diplomacy today. Making sure “our actions match our words” is everyone’s challenge.

Competition from pseudo-facts

As I said, I don’t think we are in a world beyond facts. What we are facing now is intense competition at all levels. Facts compete with pseudo-facts on substance, on speed, and for audiences’ attention. And yes, people accept stories that “feel” true more readily than stories that challenge their beliefs. But they accept them because they believe they are true.

Brexit is often cited as an example of the post-truth phenomenon — with a leading pro-exit member of Parliament famously saying that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” But about the same time, the Institute for Government, a British government organization, released a poll conducted by the research firm Populus, indicating that 85 percent of those surveyed wanted politicians to consult professionals and experts when making difficult decisions and 83 percent wanted government to make decisions based on objective evidence. In the UK, trust in experts and confidence in government have both increased since a similar poll in 2014, and both people who voted to leave and to remain in the EU shared much the same view.

On this side of the Atlantic, polling also shows that Americans hunger for factual truth. According to a study by the Media Insight Project, a partnership of the American Press Institute and the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, nearly 90 percent of Americans say it is “extremely” or “very important” that the media get its facts correct. Furthermore, about 40 percent say they can remember a specific incident that eroded their confidence in the media, most often one involving inaccuracies or a perception of one-sidedness, making factual accuracy the most important component of public trust in journalism.

There are also dangers in accepting a post-truth paradigm. Communicators, experts, and officials may feel overwhelmed and succumb to inaction or, worse, be seduced into adopting “post-truth techniques” that appeal only to emotion and sideline facts or challenging audiences’ beliefs.

There is also the temptation to counter the barrage of misinformation by attempting to rebut every false story, but this is a losing proposition. There are too many of them, they spread too quickly, and there are too few of us to chase them.

A paper published by RAND in 2016, titled “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model,” made three important observations: 1) people tend to believe something when it is repeated, 2) propagandists gain the advantage when they get to make the first impression, and 3) subsequent rebuttals may actually work to reinforce the original misinformation, rather than dissipate it. The paper’s conclusion is that the most effective way to respond to misinformation is not to counter every false story out there, but to direct a “stream” of accurate messaging at whatever the firehose of falsehoods is aimed, in an effort to lead the targeted audience in a more productive direction.

I agree with this approach and have so for years. The way to counter pseudo-facts and misinformation is to present a compelling narrative of our own, one that is true, defensible, and based on the enduring values and goals that people share, not the least of which is strengthening our collective security and prosperity. To gain credibility and make our narrative relevant, we must also listen to and acknowledge our audiences’ underlying fears, grievances, and beliefs.

But it is not just a matter of telling a good story; the narrative must be tied to action.

A case in point is the history of space exploration in this country, in particular the quest to put a man on the moon. In the Cold War context, this effort was an important security goal, one that required public support, resources, and full political commitment over many years. In 1961, President Kennedy gave his historic speech before a joint session of Congress that set the United States on a course to the moon, which he followed with other speeches and public acts that inspired not just the American people, but invited audiences around the globe to be part of this great endeavor. And foreign publics responded by embracing U.S. aspirations on behalf of the human race. When the entire planet watched Neil Armstrong alight from the Eagle lunar module and utter the phrase “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he distilled into these few words a decade-long narrative that fueled the imagination and hopes of billions around the world.

Another example is the Voice of America. I am glad Amanda Bennet is here and will talk more about this later, but something she said last week at a public meeting on the Hill really struck me. She described VOA as “exporting the First Amendment” – that is to say, the value and importance that Americans place on a free and independent press – by providing fact-based, balanced reporting to millions of people in closed societies every day. We talk about it, and we do it. Nothing is as powerful as a living example, and as a Public Diplomacy practitioner, I could not be prouder of the message, both literal and figurative, that VOA delivers.

In short, we’ve got to “walk the talk,” or risk losing credibility. This is not to say countering disinformation is easy. It requires strategic thought, creative tactics, and sustained investment. The State Department and other parts of the federal government have been focused on this issue for several years, and analyzing how these efforts have fared is helping us chart the way ahead.

Case study – State’s approach to fighting extremist ideology

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we in government — and those of you in academia and the think tank world — were desperate to find explanations for what had happened and, more importantly, to prevent something similar from happening again, with a particular focus on containing and countering the appeal of violent extremist ideology.

All ideas were encouraged, and we pressed our people to think creatively and to try new approaches. One approach aimed at mass appeal was the $15 million “Shared Values” campaign featuring Muslims living happily in the United States. As well intended as this was, the messaging did not acknowledge underlying grievances and was not considered effective in reaching young Muslim audiences overseas.

Another idea you may remember from a just few years ago was the “Welcome to ISIS Land” video, which went viral for all the wrong reasons. It was heavily criticized for embracing the enemy’s tactics and coming across as bullying. Most critically, it proved to be ineffective as the U.S. government was not a credible source of information for the intended audience, who only seemed to be alienated by the message.

Hampering our efforts was an inability to measure the impact of our work reliably. For instance, the former Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which was established in 2010 to counter extremist ideology, could point to the size of its Facebook and Twitter followings — and the number of death threats and efforts to shut down its accounts were evidence that the center had gotten under the skin of ISIS — but it could not measure effectiveness. As a result, it was never clear whether its efforts reached those at risk of joining ISIS, let alone diverted them from that path.

The CSCC was also under resourced. Its budget hovered in the range of $5-6 million per year, while the Pentagon was spending about $150 million on similar efforts and the CIA even more. This situation even emerged as a media story, with ABC News describing the U.S. government’s messaging strategy to counter extremist ideology as underfunded and ineffective.

This experience provided us with a wealth of valuable lessons for charting a new way forward in countering false narratives, including:

  • Not imitating the enemy,
  • Having a credible message based on facts and evidence that acknowledge underlying grievances,
  • Partnering with credible, independent, trusted messengers,
  • Using technology to identify the right audiences and the best approaches for reaching them,
  • Employing analytics to evaluate effectiveness and feeding that information back into the process, and
  • Securing political and bureaucratic support, including sufficient funding and personnel.

On the technology front, I am particularly enthusiastic about the potential to use tools such as social graph analysis (SGA) to help us identify credible individuals who drive and shape online opinion within each country. Network analysis can provide information in two critical areas: 1) topics important to people in target audiences and 2) the most uniquely influential people within those topical clusters. This information, which is used daily by business to analyze consumers’ tastes and persuade them to buy more, can provide a clearer view for engaging target audiences in partnership with the influencers they trust most. We in the U.S. government are prohibited from using such tools when the information of U.S. citizens is involved.

A new approach

The beneficiary of these lessons is the State Department’s new Global Engagement Center (GEC), which is legislatively given the task “to lead, synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests.” In this role, the GEC leads the interagency in developing a whole-of-government approach to countering malign actors in the information space, seeking to fully leverage the strengths and capabilities of each agency involved in this effort. A key element to ensuring coordination and maximum efficacy is an interagency synchronization meeting hosted weekly by GEC.

The GEC also enjoys strong support on the Hill, from both sides of the aisle. In fact, it was Congress that expanded the GEC’s mandate — which originally focused solely on non-state actors — to include recognizing, understanding, and exposing state-sponsored propaganda and disinformation and countering its effects.

In terms of resources, the GEC is funded at approximately $16 million dollars for FY-17 and is slated to have an additional $19.8 million in supplemental funding in FY-18. Further, Congress has authorized – although not mandated – the Department of Defense to transfer up to $60 million a year, in both FY-17 and FY-18, to support GEC activities.

We are focusing today on the importance of facts, and central to the work of the GEC is injecting factual content into the information space to counter violent extremist radicalization and recruitment. Content is developed through collaborative, thematic campaigns in coordination with the U.S. interagency and with members of the Counter-ISIS Coalition and other global partners. GEC support includes funding, technical assistance, capacity building, and conceiving and implementing joint projects.

Using this approach, we have reduced direct engagement on violent extremism in favor of partner-driven messaging at the local level. These partners are credible voices that can deliver messages that resonate with at-risk populations, such as NGOs, schools, young people, social and civil society leaders, religious leaders, and governments.

Additionally, the GEC is utilizing data science from both the public and private sectors — including polling operations, audience studies, and academic research — to identify and understand target audiences, to guide and inform the development of messaging and content, and to measure effectiveness.

For instance, the GEC’s “Defectors” campaign used content from 14 Coalition countries that highlighted the lived experiences of ISIS defectors and the effects of their recruitment on their families. In just one week, the campaign reached 2.4 million people who watched over one million minutes of video. Ultimately, the Defectors campaign reached seven million individuals and garnered 780,000 “click-throughs” from people identified as being at risk for recruitment by violent extremists. Despite the impressive numbers, the cost of this data-driven campaign was only $15,000.

Of course, the GEC is still fairly new, so I look forward to letting you know in future discussions how it is faring. But I think we are on the right track in countering an ideology that trades in falsehoods by working with credible partners to present the facts and alternatives that are true.

Conclusion

Going back to my original premise, I respectfully disagree with the concept that we are living in a “post-truth society.” What we are facing instead is increased competition from pseudo-facts, but the truth is still valued, desired, and ultimately compelling. We just need to find the right ways to communicate it.

And while some of my remarks have been focused on the messaging component of Public Diplomacy, we must remember that many other PD tools play a vital role in sharing the truth, such as educational and cultural exchanges, youth initiatives, and English teaching programs. These types of people-to-people interactions help reframe conversations on contentious issues, demonstrate the value of transparency, and build trust with key audiences.

Finally, there is one last critical element in this debate. In addition to offering compelling, truthful narratives, I believe we must also help foreign audiences targeted by concerted disinformation campaigns to better understand the dangers of accepting everything at face value and encourage them to cultivate a “healthy skepticism.” By this I do not mean to promote paranoia, simply vigilance. But how do we do this effectively when people, especially young people, are bombarded with so much dubious information? How do we help them become healthy skeptics?

Training and education programs that both cultivate a questioning mindset and build the skills of information consumers to separate the wheat from the chaff are vital. One way we are doing this is through TechCamps focused on disinformation. These interactive workshops, led by technical experts, build the capacity of key foreign influencers in civil society to push back on fake news. A special fund dedicated to incubating collaborative follow-on projects maximizes each workshop’s impact and has resulted in such innovations as a one-stop data verification tool for Ukrainian journalists to fact-check online media content.

To be truly effective, however, we must start at a younger age. A recent study by Stanford showed that students at most grade levels cannot tell the difference between fake and real news as they often lack the critical thinking skills needed to separate truth from misinformation. Game theory has the potential to help us develop smarter ways to build the fact-checking skills of students, and video games could contain elements that help players of all ages become more aware – and wary of – faux facts. This realization has prompted some teachers across the country to use games, such as Simon says, to help students build these skills.

Beyond these ideas, I believe we should be asking what economic mechanisms might be used to encourage skepticism and objective truths. Are there known business models that reward honesty and penalize dishonesty? Perhaps some of you here may be tempted to undertake research in these areas.

I look forward to discussing these issues with you further, but before we open the floor for questions and comments, I want to thank all of you for your interest in, and support for, the work of Public Diplomacy. We in government need your input, your ideas, and your talent. Our challenges are too big and our resources too limited to go it alone. Together, I know we can successfully navigate the current sea of misinformation and propaganda and find a productive path forward. After all, we have truth on our side.

Thank you.